Note: Jackie Barrow & Liz Fewings have been on The Granny Cloud team since it began in 2009. They are also members of the core team. Today, they share some insights on an activity – story reading – which was the key feature when The Granny Cloud was launched and continues to be [despite the addition of many different activities] an important component of Granny sessions. Especially with children who are learning the language. EditorLiz and I (Jackie) have been members of the Granny Cloud since its inception in 2009. We both responded to an article in the Guardian where Sugata Mitra was asking for ‘English grannies to read stories over Skype to children in India’. Neither of us had ever used Skype nor were actual grannies but we had both always loved reading stories to children. I (Jackie) hated it when my own children no longer wanted me to read them a bedtime story. Teenagers!
The project has grown and developed hugely since 2009 but story telling is still an important part of the Granny Cloud. Sharing stories is a wonderful way of engaging with the children, helping them acquire new vocabulary and gain confidence in expressing themselves. A story is a great starting point for games, discussions, art and craft activities and the posing of small and ‘big questions’. A good story draws the listener in and leaves them wanting more.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years as to how best to share a story over Skype. It certainly isn’t as simple as when you are in a room with children. Holding an actual book up to the camera can be tricky. It’s not easy to get it straight, make sure that they can at least see the picture and then of course manage to read the text yourself! Technology has advanced in the nine years that we have been going and a much wider range of online books is now available. Many of our Grannies make use of these. We (Liz and Jackie) have found that our preference is always to be able to read the story ourselves, in our own voices, at our own speed, to be able to stop, start, go back, repeat lines, use facial expression and actions to help with meaning.
What sort of books has also been a topic for discussion. We have found that the many lovely books for young children with beautiful illustrations and engaging stories can work well with children of all ages acquiring English as an additional language. With the older children it’s important not to choose anything patronising or ‘babyish’ but even simple texts such as ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ as well as extending vocabulary around food can lead on to discussing diet, the life cycle of the butterfly and other insects or animals. ‘Dear Zoo’, enjoyed by Jackie’s 16 month old granddaughter, led on to a discussion about pets and domestic animals. Not with her! Level of English and cognitive ability are not one and the same. Does the story need to be culturally familiar? We would say not necessarily. As long as it is well illustrated and has universal themes, we feel that story telling can be a very natural way of broadening the children’s outlook.
So – how does one make sure that the children understand and enjoy the story? Here are some suggestions. Don’t feel that you have to do all or any of them. They are just suggestions! In fact to do all would be impossible!
* Choose a book with a strong storyline, where the pictures clearly help the child understand what is happening. It should be entertaining and encourage discussion.
* Show the pictures and introduce important vocabulary first.
* Read it to the children yourself first. Don’t be afraid to slow it right down, using correct pronunciation, vocal and facial expression.
* Ways to check that they have understood include – True/False questions, sequencing the story, filling in the missing word, putting things into groups or columns – all this can be done informally as you go along, using the instant message box in Skype or even on a whiteboard. You could give it to the group to work out together or in pairs at the end of the story. Still other possibilities included mind maps, getting them to tell the coordinator the story in their own language, telling you the story in English, drawing a picture to illustrate an element of the story, choosing a title for the story – either from some suggested by you or coming up with their own, stopping before the end and getting them to decide on a possible ending – again either from suggestions from you or unaided.
* You can point out that you are reading like you are talking, and that the punctuation helps you do that. You could model a small section and ask them to have a try. (Especially have them note how you change your voice when asking a question).
* How to get round them reading without understanding! Many of them want to read to show off how fluent they are. Avoid letting them read without understanding. Let them read towards the end once you feel they understand. Let them join in with a line that is repeated and which they now understand. Encourage them to predict the last line of a rhyme if you are using a poem. If appropriate give them parts of different characters in the story. You can discuss if the character is kind, friendly, fierce, angry etc. and get them to try to show it in their voice.
* Practice makes perfect. You may be able to share a link with the children so they can read the story on line. If you can only find a different version, the children should have understood the story enough to help them tackle a slightly different version and will enjoy telling the story through the pictures.
We (Jackie and Liz) got together to write this blog in the hope that it would be a starting point for further discussion once our forum on the website is up… So we look forward to taking this discussion further soon…